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The Cautionary Tale of Mother Teresa

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The Cautionary Tale of Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa, sitting on the ground in Croatia, 1979

Mother Teresa in Croatia, 1979, ©Dreamstime.com/Zatletic

We cannot give what we do not have. Many of you agree. But your illuminating comments showed me it’s also true that we cannot have what we do not give. Yep, and I’ll explain that too.

 

First though, It’s so critical to understand the role self-love plays in devotional service I have to say more before exploring the flip side. As some of you wise sister travelers suggest—and as I watched coaching clients learn—trying to love and provide for others without loving ourselves first and last simply doesn’t work. We really, really cannot give what we do not have. Why?

 

Because hoping to heap on others love and attention we don’t give ourselves is like drawing water from a dry well. We pump (and pump ourselves up) to little avail since there’s just no juice to be squeezed. Sooner or later, we are bound to resent doing for others what we don’t do for ourselves. Short of self-love and renewal, we burn up and out and wonder what’s wrong with us.

 

Nothing is wrong with us, of course. Who wouldn’t be resentful about that sort of “selfless” service—doing for everyone but ourselves? How could that not feel compulsory, bitter and dry? No matter how noble our intentions, or how “good” our service may look, short of self-love what we’re serving up will be tainted with unhappiness, our own and that of those we hope to help.

 

The much revered Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa turned out to have been a bizarre and terribly telling case in point. While she seemed joyously devoted to serving the lepers and destitute multitudes of Calcutta, her letters to her confessors and superiors tell a different story. Published after her death, in the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, and featured in TIME magazine, those letters admitted to a deep unhappiness and hypocrisy. In August 23, 2007 TIME said:

 

The letters…reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever—or, as the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, write, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist.”

 

That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta…Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications… she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing…and…says it has driven her to doubt the existence…of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she writes, is “a mask…that covers everything…What hypocrisy.”
  

To the world’s surprise, Mother Teresa felt terrible about herself, pretended otherwise and was deeply unhappy for much of her life. But what I find most interesting is that she fell into despair at the very time she started devoting herself, exclusively it seemed, to being of service to others.  My guess is she must have stopped directing her love and light (or what she’d perhaps have identified as God’s love and light) inward, in the mistaken belief she “should” focus entirely on service. However helpful her service may have been, the way she did it was not serving her.

 

I have learned—and continue to learn—a great deal from the contrasting spiritual role models represented by the unhappy, outwardly-oriented Mother Teresa on one hand, and my beaming reclusive Master Guru, Bapuji, on the other. Bapuji was serving, too, as my own life I hope attests. But from all we could tell, he valued service to himself and God above all else.

 

It’s true his meditation and prayer often yielded songs and teachings of the highest spiritual order, which he shared in writing and, for the last years of his life, aloud with us, a service to mankind if there ever was one. The difference in his service is that meditation—the one-pointed devotion to Self and God—always came first. The writing and sharing were no more (or less) than the juicy fruits of those years of days and nights alone in silence and, increasingly, in love.

 

Pondering all that, here’s the fruit I am coming around to: Learning to be happy with ourselves—to love, honor and nurture our dear hearts, or what I call the Self of All, may be the single greatest service we can offer the world, showering happiness on us and everyone we touch.

 

How we do that—and the notion that we cannot have what we do not give (any more than we cannot give what we do not have)—must wait till next time. Meanwhile, I am even more eager than usual to hear what you think, about Mother Teresa and Bapuji’s examples and, always, what you are learning about living the love we all are. To leave a few wise words of your own takes only a few minutes and makes for rich and meaningful conversation for us all. Thank you!

 

Categories: Inspiration
  • http://www.facebook.com/sheila.kelly.790 Sheila Kelly

    What a fascinating topic, Suzanne, wonderfully written and expressed as you do so beautifully. As I read what you wrote of Mother T, my mind flashed back to a meeting I was part of in which someone quoted her “Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” Although I did not know of the unhappiness you write about, my thought at the time was: I do not think of her as a smily person. I always saw sadness in her countenance, a reflection of my own unhappiness perhaps but observed nonetheless.

    It seems that Mother T is a reflection of our own struggle … between the voices of ego and the Voice of our Purpose or calling or whatever one calls it. I know I can be filled with great joy and purpose and that the voices of ego are always ready and willing to convince me that I am mistaken. For me, it is always, always, always about discerning the different voices and choosing which one to believe. Also, it is about ultimately encouraging collaboration between all the voices in our psyche. Not a process taught by any main street religion I’ve encountered.

    Your article begged a question for me:
    Could Bapuji be as happy if he were out in “the world” more? You can answer that better than I, for sure.

    Blessings to you, dear Suzanne.
    I love reading your words of wisdom. Sheila.

    • Suzanne Grenager

      Great question about Bapuji, and something for me to contemplate. You offer so much here, Sheila, I hardly know where to start. Well, okay, I’ll start by thanking you profusely for saying you love to read my blog. What a privilege and joy it is for me to have wise, seasoned readers like you to “speak” to — and then who speak *up* with a wisdom all their own! It is what keeps me going…and going.

      How interesting — and perceptive — that you sensed Mother Teresa’s sadness, whether or not it was partly a projection of your own. And I really like your point about her struggles being a reflection of our struggles. I know what you mean about the voices in our head and especially the one that tries to sabotage our sense of joyful purpose.

      Perhaps such a voice was nagging at Mother Teresa, making her afraid that if she got joyful she might lose her sense of purpose, or simply that she wasn’t “good enough.” We can only speculate. But I agree with you the topic is fascinating and that getting our voices to collaborate is a big part of the work. It may not be taught by mainstream religion but I have worked with a woman who teaches what is called Voice Dialogue, most recently at Kripalu, so let me know if you want her name.

      Finally about whether Bapuji would have been as happy out in the world. I don’t know the answer. All I can safely say is that when he did show up in our world, to speak and chant with us, he exhibited what seemed a perfect and ever-joyful equanimity. But we need to remember that was after 19 years spent in silence and usually alone. Bless you, sister!

      • MB

        Mary: my question is an extension to that of aegiscoach you just answered. It made me think and question whether or not the worlds surrounding Bapuji when he appeared to meditate and chant with you or other public ( his way of sharing) was the same kind of the world that surrounded Mother Theresa when she appeared to share with those needing her. Could it possible then that the battling voices were louder in Mother Theresa than in Bapuji as the sight of the needy in her world was more dramatic? Should we even compare the two given the difference in the world they chose to directly share their love with?

        • http://suzannegrenager.com/ Suzanne Grenager

          Thanks, dear Mary, for showing up all these months later to offer a comment on this post, one of my favorites. Your appearance here now may even inspire me to get blogging again after a long, long break. You are certainly right in pointing out the very different worlds — and, I’d add, very different spiritual contexts — in which Mother Teresa and Bapuji practiced. Day and night!

          But my point is that if Mother Teresa was living with voices battling constantly in her head (as she says she was), the world would have been better served had she stopped to listen to, learn from and perhaps ultimately quiet them in the light of self-love. Her “service” then could have better served her — and, in my humble opinion, would have better served the nuns, lepers and everyone she met.

          I continue to hold to the truth of my words many months ago: “Learning to be happy with ourselves—to love, honor and nurture our dear hearts, or what I call the Self of All, may be the single greatest service we can offer the world, showering happiness on us and everyone we touch.” That is what I saw and *felt* Bapuji do and the path I aspire to.

  • MDR

    Wonderful post. Insightful and revealing. A terrific lesson to remember our deep need for self-care to our direct plugin cord to God as the very breath we need to live. If we perceive GOD in a state of daily contemplative meditation the world then appears complete with meaning. It is true about that little shift from God connectedness (which is the source of all goodness) to telling ourselves that our work is “godly” and then becoming drained and empty in the ego driven (all though very well meaning) acts of (wo)man.

    • Suzanne Grenager

      Maria, I love your idea about self-care being a “direct plug-in cord to God” and the “very breath we need to live” (if I understand you correctly). Powerful language there, girl, which sounds like it’s coming directly from your rich life experience. I also appreciate your helpful reminder about not falling into the self-righteousness trap when we are doing what we may think of as “God’s work.”

      Maybe the best we can do is to keep tuning deep in to that dear heart of ours, then doing the next thing that feels right for *us*, while letting the chips fall where they may. For me the hardest thing is letting go of the results of my actions, especially the work I consider most meaningful and, dare I say it, godly.” For me self-nurturance is a lot about just showing up where I feel I belong, no matter the outcome. Thank you for being here, and I am honored that the post spoke to you. Love!

  • Mary Pinto

    Before the Buddha became enlightened, he had it all, wealth and anything he could ever want. He was unhappy and went out into the world to find happiness. He tried self denial to the point of starvation and near death and realized this was not the way either. After years of meditation he became enlightened under the bodhi tree and then practiced the middle way…moderation in all things. It is a fine line between loving and caring for ourselves and others. If we do the former, we can do the latter, but must always put back in and heal ourselves to go out and do for others. I think M. Teresa practiced too much self denial perhaps was terribly burned out and went into a spiritual desert and even dark night for the rest of her life. On the other end of the spectrum there is too much greed, hatred and delusion in the world. It is a life’s work to practice the middle way.

    • Suzanne Grenager

      Mary, dear one: I love and appreciate your bringing the Buddha and his middle way into this discussion. And I have noticed that, as you agree Mother Teresa probably did, many religious ascetics over millennia seem to have erred on the side of self-denial and abnegation, which inevitably leads to dark nights of the soul. Why? Because the gods and goddesses that we are live in flesh & blood bodies, rife with human emotions and very real needs. To listen to and honor those needs — to nurture our whole and holy being, body, mind and spirit — is to nurture and fuel the divine being within. As you too suggest, it’s only then that we can truly serve the world outside, as Buddha so beautifully did. Thank you for your insights!

  • Anne Ulvestad

    I was married for 32 years. First, believing the ideal, then believing it was all my fault the ideal wasn’t working out, then moving forward with my own work, but hoping we could still work together, finally realizing we were not going to work together now, and I had a life to live that didn’t involve waiting. My daughter, who is a wonderful adult with a family of her own, is still angry. I KNOW that my healing work, with myself and others, depends on the love, honor and nurturing I offer to myself–that this is the greatest gift I have, and therefore the greatest gift I offer to others. I still have a hard time putting that into words when I speak to her.

    So this topic, especially in relationship to our role models and mentors, is of interest to me. It is a thread whose time has come in the balance of evolution. It is an idea that can be expressed without the black and white of “right” and “wrong” and instead speaks to “loving my neighbor as myself.”

    • Suzanne Grenager

      Yes, dear Anne! What a glorious testimonial you write — and your newly reclaimed life represents — of the inestimable value of learning to love ourselves so we may love our neighbors. Thank you for offering us your very real example of first withholding, and then doing finally for yourself what Mother Teresa apparently never did — loving, honoring and nurturing the wonderful woman you are. May you reap the benefits you so richly deserve from your years of deep work. And if you have trouble finding words to tell your daughter, perhaps you’d want to direct her to the powerful heartfelt statement you made here. My love & support on your way!

  • Mary Pinto

    Why does religion and the guilt of having to “do good works” (in
    the extreme with M. Teresa) have to go together? I think that Bapuji’s
    “Way” was more willing. Catholicism has so many drawbacks. Look at
    the love Bapuji emanated and what he did for you and for so many.
    Poor M. Teresa! Thanks for your reply. I wonder if she had regrets
    at the end of her life that she simply kept to herself.

  • Lizzie Adams

    I am appreciating and resonating deeply with this conversation that the love must awaken and be deeply nourished on the inside in order to be authentically of service to other & all of life. I also feel a great compassion towards Mother Theresa… that I this day have the opportunity to discern these distinctions in a way that she did not yet have access to. This is how I hold it with my mother & my grandmother… I have the honor of healing & awakening in a way they did not have the inner & outer resources to do so. So, all that I have the privilege to evolve into that is of love– I include them in– I share with them (now transitioned) the honor of my blessed life. I would also like to be humble about where I am able to stand… reach back & extend a loving hand to Mother Theresa. I wish I could have been there to love & support her into the possibility of her own nourishment,

    • Suzanne Grenager

      Oh, Lizzie, what a beautiful and touching testament to you and your great heart that you say you’d like to “reach back and extend a loving hand to Mother Teresa.” But for me your most luminous and inspiring words are these: “I wish I could have been there to love & support her into the possibility of her own nourishment.” Wow!

      You are one awesome woman, and I am honored that you are here, not only resonating with this conversation about the critical role of self-nurturance in a life of service but contributing so fruitfully to it. Though Mother Teresa is gone, I am sure you are extending that loving hand — and great heart — of yours to the many living beings who are lucky to know you. Thank you and may you be ever blessed!

      • Lizzie Adams

        Thank you so much, Suzanne!
        Thank you for the deeply real & needed work you are doing & being!
        I am pleased to have stumbled upon you!
        Take beautiful care…
        Lizzie

  • Millie Grenough

    Ah, yes, always the fine balance.Thanks for your reminder, Suzanne. When I begin my OASIS workshops with folks standing up and singing “Me-me-me-me,” then go to “you-you-you-you,” then “we-we-we-we,” then “us-us-us-us,” people are amused and confused. I ask, “Why ‘me’ first?” Then we get into it. Even for those who are very religious, usually we can all realize that “If God created me, my first obligation is to be the best me I can be, and that means taking great care of this creation so that I can be beautiful and useful for others and the whole world.” Shine on!”
    Millie

    • Suzanne Grenager

      Beautifully put, Millie! I like thinking of myself as a “creation” rather than mere “creature.” And I love, love that your OASIS workshops begin with everyone singing “me,” “you” and then “us.” What a brilliant way to help people embody and, so, integrate into their beings, what could be nothing but an interesting idea: that, yes, we must polish ourselves to shining before we can, as you movingly put it, “be beautiful and useful for others!” Thank you for shining your bright light here and through the wonderful work you do in the world. May OASIS continue to radiate out and out!

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